Speed of the Pittsburgh Sound welcomes you to the second half of the second edition of Speed Trials. This time around, we aim to bring you all those beat makers and rhymesayers that call the steel city home. As I have mentioned before, Pittsburgh is lucky to be spoiled with more visionary laptop-DJ’s (Tobacco, Power Pill Fist, Discuss), tastemaking sample-smiths (the illustrious Girl Talk, Skymall) and wit stealing mc’s (Wiz Khalifa, Grand Buffet, Bloodmoney, Boaz) than most cities can ever dream of. Scaling the review down to only four tracks from such a deep talent pool was no easy task.
In addition to all this home grown talent, spots like The New Amsterdam and Shadow Lounge continue to bring some seriously challenging hip-hop into the Pittsburgh scene. Some upcoming shows include Wale (pronounced Wall-ay) at The Shadow Lounge on May 22 and Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox at the Thunderbird Cafe on June 13. Now that we have established the steel city can bring that boom boom boom as good as any other scene in America, onto the tracks.
Wiz Khalifa, the crown prince of Pittsburgh hip-hop, is back with a cut off his latest release, Flight School, out in early May. “Soulmate ft. John Record” is one of the more minimalist efforts on a mixtape that could be considered a kitchen sink affair with the majority of the cuts suffocating from overused, contemporary rap production cliches (re: “Boarding Pass”).
“Soulmate”‘s beat is easily the most affecting on the album, showcasing stuttering drum combinations at various speeds and a heavy oscillating synth backdrop that hums with the robust atmosphere of a Dave Sitek production. Khalifa’s delivery is startling in its disconnection from his usual flow with his constant, relaxed arrogance being replaced by a straining, sincere draw that puts effort behind lines like “and last night was amazing/I can honestly say that you the best I ever had/and you don’t remember/because you weren’t even there/but your soul was.”
The honest day’s work suits Wiz, and more importantly separates him from the magnanimous hip-hop masses. This isn’t exactly Kanye-level insecurity, but “Soulmate” provides a healthy glimpse into the head of an MC poised to take his place on the national stage. Stay grounded Wiz, we still love you.
DJ Shadow famously asserted on the seminal “Building Steam From a Grain of Salt” off 1996’s genre defining Entroducing… that he is both a student and teacher of the drum. With “Deep Submergence,” Pittsburgh-based beat maker Recollect (a.k.a. very good friend of mine Derrick Dumont) makes it extremely apparent his homework is done. The drums on this record push things around, clearing paths big and small for beautifully aged samples to fall into place. After the ominous, shuttering organ cut-up that begins the track, some dusty horns, pianos and hungover guitars fill the piece with a hazy familiarity.
This is a record digger’s dream, nostalgic and loose, composed with the same fly by night enthusiasm of the best jazz recordings. Maybe Recollect’s aiming to replicate the feeling of an improvised jam session, slowly revealing the effortless complexity and technical wizardry that can happen not only in a recording studio, but in a bedroom as well. A headphone symphony? You’re damn right.
I’ll make no apologies for my allegiance to Brooklyn-based, Definitive Jux Records, a label known for their harsh, Bomb Squad influenced production techniques and verbose, game changing MC’s (El-p, Cage, Mr. Lif among others). So when I first listened to “Dirt,” off Tobacco’s(driving creative force behind the Pittsburgh based Black Moth Super Rainbow) debut solo release, Fucked up Friends, and marveled not only at Aesop Rock (crown jewel of the Def Jux empire) and his paranoid, surrealistically dense verses, but Tobacco’s schizophrenic beat that was underground rap-challenging and mind blowingly psychedelic in the same measure, I realized it was a match made in heaven.
Even Tobacco’s most prized “instrument”, a surprisingly agile vocoder, provides the perfect chorus to split up Aesop Rock’s stream of consciousness rhymes that showed the MC in top form, spitting lines like “Kenobi comma Ben/Mingled the common men/He had the fangs of Gengis Kahn, he had the heart of Gonga Den.” Hopefully Tobacco will eventually lend his kaleidoscopic sense for sonic narrative to some local wordsmiths. Can you say Lord Grunge-Tobacco collab for 2010? I’m sure as hell holding my breath.
Discuss a.k.a. Young Frankenstein (a.k.a. Andrés Ortiz-Ferrari) has an uncanny knack for making compellingly intricate, instrumental hip-hop that keeps the audience in mind. In a genre that is overstuffed by too many self-indulgent experiments, where some compositions are more interesting for the artist to create than for a crowd to listen to, Discuss provides a unique bridge between older crate digging samples and glitchy breakbeat production. The convergence of the twain can produce a track like “What it is to Fly,” which boasts not only some choice soul, reggae and jazz samples but a massive lumbering synth encrusted beat that crackles and shimmers with each progression.
This technically heady (but more importantly danceable) track paints a vivid, slow motion fever dream that is as atmospheric as it is entertaining. With “What it is to Fly,” Discuss has thrown the gauntlet down for the hip hop/IDM scene in Pittsburgh to follow suit. The track will be featured on an internet only ep distributed by Puerto Rican label Tekadisko and will be out by the end of May.